Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Straying from the Party Line: Transparent and the New Reality of Streaming

“Transparent” is our first streaming show, so let’s take a moment to look at some of the huge differences that have developed between broadcast and streaming. The big ones are these:
  • Episodes can be any length because they don’t have to fill a slot in a schedule.
  • The shows are almost entirely dependent on reviews and word-of-mouth. They’re not heavily advertised elsewhere, and they don’t run house-ads for each other.
  • They often dump an entire season all at once.
  • When each episode ends, the viewer is prompted to start the next one.
In retrospect, it’s these final two qualities that have come to define the form, even though neither is inherent to it. People forget this now, but even once we were accustomed to the idea that Netflix would be making their own shows, it was considered utterly bizarre and shocking when they announced that the entire first season of “House of Cards” would dump at one time.

Cutting the cable cord is one thing, but eliminating the steady drip of weekly releases is something else entirely. This was a huge risk:
  • It seemed that this would lose the “water cooler” element, because even if the show caught on, everybody would be on a different episode, and unable to discuss it.
  • Weekly episode reviews would no longer be automatic weekly advertisements.
  • Online speculation about what might happen next would disappear, killing one source of word-of-mouth.
  • Shows could no longer react to audience response. The season was done before they knew what anybody thought of the early episodes. There would no longer be “breakout characters”
But we now know that Netflix knew what they were doing. Their floundering streaming service never had enough movies, so they started offering whole seasons of pre-existing TV shows, and they noticed how much people enjoyed “binging” though seasons of “Breaking Bad” and other suspenseful shows, so they made the shocking decision to put the cart before the horse. Here’s what happened:
  • The water cooler discussions continued, but they changed: ground rules were now set, pre-establishing what episode each person was on and what could be discussed.
  • Reviewers, too, had to learn to adapt, often running separate reviews for bingers and those wishing to savor every episode (and forcibly segregating the commenters)
  • Online speculation and “breakout characters” were just lost.
Now that streaming and season-dumps are popular, it’s time to look back and figure out how this is changing the pilot-story art form, and how it upsets our checklist.

Despite being an undeniably great show, “Transparent” (which streams on Amazon) shreds the checklist in many ways, and some of those ways reflect the changes brought about by streaming and binging. The most obvious is probably how slow this pilot is to develop.

When the first episode of “Breaking Bad” opened, it had to include everything and the kitchen sink in week one. It wouldn’t be enough to simply end on Walt’s decision to cook meth, even though that was a huge story in and of itself: No, it had to get there by the halfway point, and then take us all the way to his first botched deal and his first killing by the end of that one hour. It had to deliver all the appeal of the show right away, or viewers might not come back a week later.

“Transparent” is totally different. The basic concept is that a 69 year old transsexual woman must come out to her three grown children. But the show is in no hurry to get there:
  • We meet all three kids first. Each gets an intro scene, then we return to each one at a later point as they each get a call from their dad.
  • We finally meet our main character, as the kids all show up at “his” house, where “he” is presenting as male and acting like it’s a normal dinner, almost telling them something, then backing off.
  • Only once they’re gone do we find out that Mort is now Maura and identifying as female when not around the kids.
  • We see Maura apologize to her support for breaking her promise to come out to her kids.
  • Finally, Maura is accidentally outed to just one of the three kids in the final shot.
So we only find out what the concept is going to be halfway through, and that concept only barely materializes at the very end, on a cliffhanger! If that was it for a whole week, few might care to tune back in a week later, because they had gotten so little pay-off during the first week, and why return to an unsatisfying show?

But streaming is totally different: Unsatisfied? Just click on the next one (or do nothing, because they start automatically) and you’ll get the satisfaction you want. The only question now is this, “Did you enjoy that enough to let it continue?” In this case, the answer for most viewers was yes.  

And of course, they don’t have to establish the premise as strongly because nobody has randomly landed on this channel while flipping around. This show, like all streaming shows, has already self-selected its audience: we’re watching this show and only this show because we’ve heard enough about it to seek it out. They’re content to wait patiently for us to enter the ring, rather than climbing over the ropes to wrestle us to the ground.

Of course, “Transparent” is an inherently audacious show that’s breaking a lot of rules, and you could argue that this pilot could have aired as-is on HBO or Showtime, but creator Jill Soloway’s laid-back style seems ideally suited to this new format, and the show’s success has been greatly helped by this marriage of content and format.


Anonymous said...

'Online speculation and “breakout characters” were just lost.'

I don't know that I agree with that. Haven't they just been scaled up? Instead of speculating about what will happen in the next episode, the audience has begun to speculate about future seasons and where the show could go. Similarly, audience favourites might not get increased prominence within the same season but they can certainly get promoted for the next one. Orange is the New Black is a good example of a show where the second season doubled down on characters that people loved to watch (look at Suzanne 'Crazy Eyes' and Pennsatucky, both of whom were promoted to the main cast for Season Two).

And now that I think about it, I don't think online speculation has vanished even with all the episodes available. As you point out, plenty of online review sites have made efforts to support a slow-burn approach to binge watching through in-depth weekly reviews and the comments sections for these articles are often rife with speculation. Of course, they require excellent moderators to work properly, but the practice hasn't vanished, just changed like the other points you make.

Unrelated, but I'd just like to say thanks for this fantastic blog. This is my first time commenting on one of your articles but I really appreciate this resource and it's consistently been both useful and enjoyable to read.

Unknown said...

Thanks! ...And you're right that they have survived to a certain extent in their own transformed ways.